It has been way too long since our last news update so now is the perfect time to get caught up on recent events! For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea in which we review media stories that mention the traditional fighting arts. In addition to discussing important events, this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.
While we try to summarize the major stories over the last month, there is always a chance that we may have missed something. If you are aware of an important news event relating to the TCMA, drop a link in the comments section below. If you know of a developing story that should be covered in the future feel free to send me an email.
Let’s get to the news!
News From all Over
One of the biggest stories over the last few weeks has been this piece, titled “Chinese mixed martial arts fighter Xu Xiaodong rose to fame exposing fake kung fu – now he just wants to ‘survive’” published in the South China Morning Post. It took on a life of its own on social media and I was seeing it everywhere for a while. This is one of the most detailed treatments of Xu Xiaodong to date. It concludes with his current struggles to keep afloat in a state increasingly determined to isolate him from the media and financial channels of exchange. If by some chance you missed this (and it didn’t show up in every CMA facebook group you are part of), it’s well worth checking out.
Incidentally, this is not the only place I have seen Xu’s name. Apparently his Facebook channel (discussed in the SCMP article) has also been pushing out some updates on the Coronavirus situation, furthering his reputation as someone committed to telling “difficult” truths. Note that this article relied on Xu’s posts when reporting on the case of an individual who had disappeared in Wuhan while attempting to report on the medical emergency in that city. I found it interesting that Xu has become the sort of individual that citizen journalists and activists in China are starting to check-in with.
We have reported on an innovative program in Salt Lake City teaching Taijiquan to homeless individuals at the public library a few times in the last couple of years. It’s one of those things that I would love to take a closer look at but I never seem to have the time. Recently they got a video profile on the Today Show!
The Washington Examiner recently posted an editorial noting all of the ways that Hong Kong’s “Martial Arts Superstars” (specifically those from the entertainment industry such as Donnie Yen and Jackie Chan) as well as its more radial protestors have failed to live up the promise of the current historical moment. The writing itself is a case-study in bothsidesism, but it was still fascinating to see martial arts being advanced as an interpretive lens capable to resolving questions about civic responsibility and virtue. I would love to see a piece like this move beyond icons of the film industry and more closely examine how actual martial arts teachers have responded to this situation, or the evolving one with the Coronavirus. I suspect that such a study would reveal a very complex tapestry of competing interests, values and relationships which do not fit nicely into a single rhetorical framework.
Still, there does to seem to be a sense that in periods of crisis even modern martial artists have some type of civic responsibility. This is a thread that runs throughout the articles in this update. Perhaps the most visible manifestation of this was Blackstone teaming up with Jet Li to raise and distribute donations for the virus situation. Less wealthy or famous martial artists have been turning to more direct means of making a difference.
One of the major issues that has arisen since the Lunar New Years is that there are now tens of millions of individuals in China living under various states of travel restrictions or quarantines as the government seeks to slow the spread of coronavirus. Everywhere one looks on TV or on social media there are stories about new measures that the government is taking to resolve the crisis. The end result seems to be a massive amount of personal frustration and anxiety as events are canceled or, in some cases, large numbers of individuals have been told not to leave their apartments.
Its been very interesting to see the way that martial artists and other types of physical trainers have begun to use both the traditional press and social media to start to offer their own services at this moment. Something like Taijiquan is the sort of exercise that can be done indoors with minimal space and no equipment. Practices like this can clearly help individuals deal with anxiety. Taiji’s boosters also note (perhaps hopefully) that it can help make individuals more resistant to infection. In short, martial arts practice is being promoted as a compensation for the loss of certainty and even physical autonomy.
Perhaps the most striking English language article in this vein was published in the Daily Mail. It featured a young male nurse in his 20s, wearing a full hazmat suit, teaching Taijiquan to a group of coronavirus patients who were being held in quarantine in a hospital.
“Zhang explains that simple Tai Chi moves can help coronavirus sufferers stay active and maintain a positive attitude towards the illness.
‘It is harder than it looks,’ the nurse tells his patients as he is giving them a demonstration, ‘just take it easy and practise slowly’.”
More typical was this article from the Shanghai Daily reporting on the “Indoor exercise boom among Chinese amid efforts to curb novel coronavirus epidemic.” It includes official statement encouraging individuals to turn towards “scientific” types of indoor training. A lot of what is discussed in this piece are physical trainers promoting calisthenics, but martial arts and Taijiquan are also being promoted as part of the mix.
Martial arts practice is the explicit focus of this next article in Xinhua. Here the emphasis is not just on staying active, but also dealing with the psychological aspects of prolongued quarantine. Indeed, a few minutes of reflection suggests that the issues facing millions of people right now go well beyond getting out to do errands and buy food.
Wing Chun News
It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of Ip Ching (1936-2020), Ip Man’s second son, who died over the recent New Year holiday after a prolonged illness. On a personal note Ip Ching had a critical influence on my understanding of Wing Chun. He was both my Sigung and graciously provided multiple interviews when I was writing chapters about Ip Man and the modern history of Wing Chun in Hong Kong. Both Jon Nielson and I were always struck by his generosity and candor. You can read our reflections on his life and contributions here.
His passing was also noted in a number of newspapers. Perhaps the most widely read piece was this one, published by the South China Morning Post.
On a happier note, readers may want to check out this CGTN video feature in which a reporter visits Guangzhou’s famous flower markets for a Wing Chun demonstration and lesson. I noticed two things. First off, that dummy has striking pads permanently attached to it. I don’t know why, but that stuck me as sacrilegious. Sort of like writing in the margins of a book….But I loved the school’s uniforms which seem to be modeled on Bruce Lee’s iconic yellow jumpsuit.
Also worth reading is this article on xinhuanet titled “Chinese Wing Chun Kung Fu gains popularity among Palestinians.” [Note that the photograph is actually from their twitter account and didn’t make it to the webpage for some reason.] I was a little surprised that Chinese state run media outlets picked up this story given the politically sensitive nature of everything that happens in Gaza. But it’s fascinating to compare this article with the ones about Coronavirus above and ask in what ways the TCMA are again being invoked as a tool to help people deal with profound psychological stress and disempowerment. Of course Chinese martial arts schools are also seen as a possible bridge between Palestine and China.
Robert Downey Jr has been doing his bit to promote Wing Chun recently. At a recent appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience he spoke at length about the importance of Wing Chun in improving his life and helping him to maintain sobriety. This seemed to generate some controversy on Facebook as Rogan was sympathetic to Downey’s story in ways that he often isn’t towards the traditional martial arts. But one way or another, their discussion spawned many news reports or mentions of Wing Chun in stories about Robert Downey Jr. in the following weeks.
Years ago, when I was an assistant instructor in my Sifu’s schools in Salt Lake City, we noticed that when when Iron Man (2008) and Sherlock Holmes (2009) came out there was a very noticeable of spike of interest in Wing Chun. Of course Robert Downey Jr. was giving exactly the same sorts of interviews back then.
Its tempting when one look back at period to attribute the spike in interest in Wing Chun to the release of the Ip Man films. Of course all of these movies were coming out at the same time so its difficult to disentangle the exact nature of causality. Still, it always seemed to me that the Ip Man films (which you had to watch on DVD) mostly appealed to people who were already interested in the Chinese martial arts. On the other hand, everyone saw Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes. And everyone seems to have heard at least one of his interview where Wing Chun was brought up. Between 2008-2010 I suspect we actually got more new students because of Robert Downey Jr. than Ip Man.
Chinese Martial Arts in the Media
Speaking of film, the South China Morning Post ran a piece profiling a number of female martial arts stars. My sense is that the upcoming release of Mulan probably inspired this, but then the feature went in a different, more historical, direction.
As always, the South China Morning Post published stories about the Chinese martial arts than any other major newspaper in the last month. In addition to the previous piece they also ran a story titled “Kung Fu: how Bruce Lee lost out to David Carradine for role in martial arts TV series.”
My first instinct was to ignore this as the Lee/Carradine rivalry is one of the most well-polished chestnuts I can think of. Luckily I did start to skim this piece and discovered something more detailed and better argued than what I anticpated. I also noted that this did a good job of debunking the claim that Kung Fu (the TV series) was based on Lee’s initial pitch of the Warrior. I also liked this quote for what it suggests about the “domestication” of the Asian martial arts in post-war America:
“Today, listening to Kung Fu feels like hearing an endless string of fortune cookies, but at the time this kind of potted ‘Eastern philosophy’ was a revelation for a lot of children and teenagers,” says Grady Hendrix, a US-based writer who scripted the Netflix documentary Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks.
“It made the case that martial arts weren’t just about punching people in the face, but about coming to a better understanding of yourself. Kung Fu was a spiritual journey. That went a long way in getting kung fu accepted in the suburbs,” Hendrix says.
The nomination of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for Best Picture generated quite a bit of negative press in the lead-up to the Oscars. Much of this was inspired by his portrayal of Bruce Lee and the ensuing (and not very enlightening) public debate as to whether the young martial artist really was “cocky,” or what boasts he may or may not have made. Perhaps the most interesting of these pieces (“Trump-era Hollywood versus Bruce Lee“) ran in the Asia Times.
The title pretty much lays out the article’s central thesis. It sees the portray of Bruce Lee in the film as openly racist and suggests that in the current era Hollywood is backsliding into old habits. Given how important Chinese revenue now is to Hollywood, and the rise of projects like Mulan, this strikes me as profoundly unlikely. I am not sure that whatever happened in a Tarantino nostalgia piece as he approaches the end of his career really reflects the direction that the American film industry as a whole is headed in vis a vis its even growing financial dependence on China.
Still, one of the main critics interviewed in this piece is the noted film scholar Gina Marchetti (University of Hong Kong) whose work is often cited and discussed in the Martial Arts Studies literature. I am sue that her name will be a very familiar one to many readers of Kung Fu Tea. Pretty much anything that she writes is worth carefully considering.
While we are on the subject of film, I also noticed this review of The Grand Grandmaster. I am not sure if this film is going to get a North American distributor, and it sounds like a flawed project. Still, the trailer looks pretty funny (I am a sucker for Cantonese comedy) and its brutal takedown of the traditional martial arts suggest that this might be helpful for individuals trying to think about Hong Kong’s attitudes towards the traditional martial arts in the post-Xu Xiaodong era.
Finally, I would like to end this news update with a public service announcement reminding everyone that heading to backyard to do some “practical cutting” with that mystery sword you just bought on Ebay can end badly. Very, very badly. Especially when the manufacturer (and I use that term very loosely) decided that they should just glue the handle directly to the blade…
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month. We visited Yongchun county (the home of White Crane), looked at antique chain and rope weapons, and read some Ming era military manuals. Joining the Facebook group is also a great way of keeping up with everything that is happening here at Kung Fu Tea.
If its been a while since your last visit, head on over and see what you have been missing!